I got a message from Sam last night about the traction Friday’s posts about workplace wellness programs was getting and she asked me to weigh in (oh pun intended friends, pun intended). I’ve had the privilege to work in many different kinds of workplaces and wellness programs can look very different.
Life in the military
It was simple, to keep my job I had to meet a set physical fitness criteria as well as a level of medical and dental fitness to keep my flying status. All medical and dental care were fully paid for and I had access to a gym 24/7 and free fitness training. I had free access to social workers, addiction counselors, you name it in the field of wellness and fitness and I could access it at no cost to myself. I got work time to go to appointments. Luxurious, yes, paternalistic, definitely. My agency in it, approaching nil. My job was 3/4 sedentary sitting in a plane or sitting at a desk. The remaining time I was expected to lug and slug gear or be working out.
Life in the not for profit sector
There wasn’t a wellness program at either not for profit I worked at in my ten years in this sector. I once attended a workplace seminar, given by a medical doctor, who claimed that a work life balance was sleeping 8 hrs a day, working 8 hrs a day and keeping 8 hrs for your family each day. Did you notice he didn’t mention weekends? I’m pretty sure someone did his laundry, cooking and cleaning. I did have extended healthcare benefits and some dental coverage. Living in Canada means I always have access to free basic care but some things aren’t covered and the extra health coverage comes in handy for prescriptions and eye wear.
Wellness was reduced to self-care and focusing on personal boundaries, which are routinely challenged by the emotional demands of not fot profit work and the blurring of the personal and professional for the sake of “the cause”. Low wages meant that I was unable to participate in many of the activities I wanted to for sheer lack of funds and a predictable schedule. When people fell ill it was chalked up to poor self care, a subtle victim blaming that erases the predictable cycles of burnout/vicarious trauma that accompanies work laden with emotion. My work was 3/4 desk work but events meant lugging gear and long days.
Life in a for profit corporation
I now have access to an onsite gym, a wellness spending account, a workstation ergonomic assessment and a plethora of resources, including onsite healthcare staff. At first I was really weirded out by the idea that my employer had so many components to their employee wellness programs. There are fitness challenges with stair climbing trivia, draws for prizes based on participation, nutritional analysis of all the cafeteria food. It’s all there and they are looking to add more. My job is the most sedentary of all the kinds of work I’ve ever had. I do not need to lift, walk or even climb stairs so I’ve really had to focus on breaks and walking to work to stay modestly active and not loose ground.
Between you, me and the apple tree
I know workplace wellness programs have a goal of reducing claims to benefits and the number of sick days employees take to benefit the employer. When programs are voluntary and accessible I think they can help meet a person’s health/fitness/wellness objectives. Between you, me and the apple tree I think many of these programs aren’t used by employees because, like many folks here have written, engaging in fitness and wellness is hard and the rewards are not always immediate. I’m skeptical that the employer’s needs and the employee’s needs are always in sync and I think we are quick to blame an individual for having shortcomings rather than critique, say, workflow design that leads to extreme sedentary work.
So if you are lucky enough to have paid work AND some kind of wellness program you are probably healthier simply because of your socioeconomic status more that participating in a specific program. I’ m still thinking on this and would love to hear your thoughts.